Baseball is a bat and ball game and is the national sport of the United States, as well as its oldest professional sport. It is also enormously popular elsewhere, particularly in countries such as Korea, Taiwan and Japan, where the national league, Nippon Professional Baseball, is considered the second-best in the world behind the Major League Baseball (MLB) of the United States.
And baseball is always in demand as a medium for wagering, even among professionals. There is no other sport that generates as many statistics as America’s favourite pastime, and this appeals greatly to those gamblers – professionals and amateurs – who like to take a deeply analytical approach to their betting.
Also the sheer number of games played appeals to many who like to apply their systems over a large sample size. In Major League Baseball, for example, each of the 30 teams takes part in 162 games each year, not counting the play-offs!
How baseball is played
The standard game consists of two teams of nine players competing over a minimum of nine innings to score the most runs. The teams take turns at batting and fielding. The game is played on a large field containing a smaller diamond of four bases, including home plate where the batter stands. The pitcher is on a mound in the middle of the diamond some 60 feet from the batter. Some pitchers fling the ball at speeds around 100mph, but their objective is to make the batter miss the ball, no matter the speed, and prevent them from getting on base. Batters must hit the ball within the parameters of the foul line and aim to advance around the bases by virtue of singles, doubles, triples or, ideally, a home run: where they clear the fence and can amble around the bases at their leisure. Or better yet, do so when the bases are loaded with earlier batters (this is known as a grand slam home run). Each batting team gets three outs per innings.
A brief history of baseball
The game evolved in England from older games played with bat and ball but it’s difficult to pin down exactly when it emerged. The first recorded game of “bass-ball’’ allegedly included the Prince of Wales as a player and took place in Surrey in 1749. As with many other sports, it was imported with British immigrants to North America and around the mid-1850s it became enormously popular around the New York area. In 1857 the first governing body was founded, and in 1876 the National League was introduced. The American League was founded in 1893, so the framework was in place for the game to develop and thrive, in the US, into the sport as it is today. Many of the rules remain in place from the earliest iterations of the game.
Types of bets on baseball
Money line (match betting): This is the simplest bet on baseball. Just bet on who you think will win the game. Hot favourites can be at very short odds though.
Handicap (run-line handicap): A popular alternative to money line. Sportsbooks will set the handicap for a team. For example, the New York Knicks may be -2.5 runs to win against a less fancied rival, meaning the Knicks must win by three runs or more for the bet to be a winner. Alternatively, you could bet on the other side of the spread, backing the underdogs with a start. It’s a way of levelling up the teams so you can back either team at the same price. Many bookies will offer varying run lines so you can bet on your chosen team at different lines for different returns.
Runs total (over/under): The bookmaker will set a total usually including half a run so there can be no ties. For example, total is set at 9.5 runs for the whole game and you can bet on the total being over or under that number. Usually there will be a few alternative totals to bet on. Some sportsbooks may offer over/under on varying periods of the game, including after the first inning.
Proposition (prop) bets: This is more or less betting on elements within the game. Depending on with which operator you are betting there can be a great variety of options here on things such as how many strikeouts a pitcher will have, or how many hits a batter will have, or whether they will hit a home run. Could even be whether extra innings will be required, first team to five runs and so on. The options can be overwhelming.
Futures: Many sportsbooks will offer odds on season-long outcomes, such as which team will win the World Series, the National League and American League and even each division within those league. Some will even takes bets on the winner of the CY Young Award for best pitcher in each of the leagues, and also the MVP for the National League and American League.
Best competitions for betting on baseball
Major League Baseball (MLB)
When it’s on: April to November
Number of teams: 30
Teams from Canada and the US are split into two leagues: the National League and American League, and then there are three divisions in each: east, central and west. The season starts in the first week of April and runs until the first week of November, with each team contesting 162 matches.
Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB)
When it’s on: March/April to October/November
Number of teams: 12
Consists of two leagues, the Central League and Pacific League, with six teams in each. The top teams from each league play off in the championship series, also known as the Japan Series. The Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo are seen as the New York Yankees of Japan. Their arch rivals are the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka. Hiroshima Toyo Carp are owned by the Matsuda family, of Mazda car fame.
Korean Baseball Organization League (KBO)
When it’s on: March to October
Number of teams: 10
The most popular sports league in South Korea. Each team plays 144 games in the regular season and the top five teams qualify for the post-season.
Mexican Baseball League
When it’s on: March to August
Number of teams: 16
Was granted Triple-A classification in 1967, which places it one rung below MLB, though its teams are not affiliated with Major League teams. The teams are split into two divisions, North and South, and each plays 114 games in the regular season. Five teams from each division advance to the play-offs which culminate in the Serie del Rey, a seven-game series between the champions of each division.
Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL)
When it’s on: March to October
Number of teams: 4
The league is contested in Taiwan with the four teams owned by major corporations. The sport was introduced to Taiwan when it was under Japanese rule.
Australian Baseball League
When it’s on: November to February
Number of teams: 6
The game was brought to Australia by American gold miners in the 1850s. Is a minor sport in the Australian landscape but has produced more than its share of Major League players.
Tips for betting on baseball
Pitchers rule, OK
The man on the mound has an enormous influence on the outcome of any MLB game. So much so that, depending on the sportsbook, if there is a late change to the starting pitcher, bets on the game may be refunded. It pays to do your homework on what sort of form the named pitchers are in.
Sporting landscape has been levelled out by draft
It’s extremely difficult now for one team to simply soak up the best of the best in terms of players, so we recommend avoiding the super-short odds on the big guns in any league. All teams have enough talent to beat any other on a given day. Teams can go on extended winning runs but no team is unbeatable over the course of a long season. The team with the most wins in a single MLB season in recent times is the 2001 Seattle Mariners with 116. That means they also lost 46 games, and as a kicker they were beaten in the American League championship series by the Yankees so did not even make it to the World Series.
It’s a marathon not a sprint
The season is long and arduous for the players and the same applies to those enjoying a wager on baseball. A long-term approach works best, meaning you should be betting on single matches rather than trying to land an all-or-nothing seven-leg parlay or something similar. Manage your bankroll carefully, stick to your standard bet amounts and don’t start making rash bets simply because you just suffered a narrow, unlucky reversal. There will be games tomorrow, the next day and the day after that, and so on. Conservative, patient gambling is the professional approach and will keep you in play longer.
The 10 greatest baseball movies
This was no easy assignment as baseball arguably is front and centre in more worthy movies than any other sport. We came up with our list but are fully prepared to be taken to task by readers for missing a gem or two.
Field of Dreams (1989): If you build it, they will come. That’s what Kevin Costner was told in this magical flick, so he built a baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield and, lo and behold, they did come, headed by Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).
The Natural (1984): The great Robert Redford just in splendid form as Roy Hobbs as he embarks on a big league career as a pitching sensation. Things don’t go to plan but Roy gets his moment in the sun in the end. Nominated for four Academy Awards.
Major League (1989): Probably does not deserve a place among some of the genuine classics on this list but, hey, it provided a few belly laughs. Your classic misfits-rise-against-the-odds sporting tale. Wild Thing, you make our heart sing.
The Bad News Bears (1976): From a more innocent if less politically correct time. But a good watch with Walter Matthau starring as the coach of hapless team of kids and a young Tatum O’Neal showing up the boys as a pitcher. Of course, coach turns around their fortunes and it’s an underdogs-rise-up story for the ages.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942): A tribute to the New York Yankees’ beloved first baseman Lou Gehrig, who died aged just 37 a year before the film was released. Gary Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Gehrig, while overall the film received 11 nominations, winning one.
Moneyball (2011): Based on the book by Michael Lewis of the same name, it tells the story of the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season and how manager Billy Beane beat budget constraints by shopping for bargain players who did well statistically. A surprise smash hit and well worth the watch.
Eight Men Out (1988): Tells the story of the infamous 1919 World Series in which eight White Sox players conspired with gamblers to throw the series. They earned more money from the crooks than they did from the game in one of the darkest episodes of baseball history.
Bull Durham (1988): Another epic outing for the baseball-loving Kevin Costner as Crash Davis playing for the minor league Durham Bulls. Throw in Susan Sarandon as a baseball groupie and you have yourself a hit.
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973): One from left field but as far as tear jerkers go this is outstanding. The then little-known Robert De Niro stars as a slow-witted and terminally-ill catcher. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea but my dad loves it, so I have included it in the list.
Trouble with the Curve (2012): We’ve included this in as a rare acting outing for Clint Eastwood in his dotage. It’s a slow, meandering type of film with Eastwood as a baseball scout on the road with his sharp-as-a-tack daughter Mickey (Amy Adams). Mickey soon attracts the attention of rival scout Johnny (Justin Timberlake). This is the one for date night.